A lot is happening at Kolkata-based independent publishing house Seagull Books at present. After celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2022, it is now embarking on a scholarly project to provide readers with new, alternative perspectives on history, culture, and society. Titled “History for Peace Tracts”, the project consists of a series of monographs by eminent thinkers, scholars and specialists. The essays enter the forgotten alleys of history to examine critical political and social issues that had a direct bearing on today’s society.
The first instalment of the series to be published in June 2023 will have six monographs by Irfan Habib, Janaki Nair, Yousuf Saeed, Rajeev Bhargava, Deepa Srinivas, and Krishna Kumar on diverse topics. In “Partitioning Bazaar Art”, filmmaker and author Yousuf Saeed talks about how popular art—posters, calendars, advertisements, and street art —was affected by Partition. He analyses the selective deification of leaders of the freedom movement, highlighting the biased representation in “patriotic” posters of the time, and looks into the portrayal of minority communities in India’s popular print culture over subsequent decades. The piece is also an exploration of how nationalism can be defined through popular imagery.
Speaking to Frontline, Saeed said, “I have been collecting this kind of art and studying them…. I think it is important for today’s readers to understand how Indian nationalism along with religious revivalism was being projected through popular art and culture. I have explored what happens to that art form with Partition—especially in the context of Hindu and Islamic images.” He pointed out that nationalism was an inclusive idea, which was not divided on the lines of religion.
In his essay, “Nationalism in India”, the historian Irfan Habib delves into the question of what makes a people living in a geographical location a nation. He reminds readers that even liberal and tolerant forms of nationalism can fall prey to exclusionary impulses: “a nation’s own critics could possibly turn out to be its own benefactors,” he writes. Janaki Nair in her essay “Single teachable Indian past possible today?” discusses the ways in which a “historical temper” can be built up in the classroom, and analyses the future of the history textbook in schools—“the single most important repository of the national past.”
Rajeev Bhargava talks about the nature of Indian secularism in his piece “Reimagining Indian secularism”. He examines various aspects of maintaining a “principled distance” from religion, and the attacks such a stand is often subjected to. He also points out that apathy or antipathy to religion can fuel further division in society.
In his piece, “Learning to live with the past,” the educationist Krishna Kumar examines the role of history as a discipline in nation- building. To let children learn to live with the past, Kumar stresses the need for spaces that make possible inquiries into a “longer” common South Asian heritage without denying a national narrative. At the same time, Kumar is addresses a very serious question: How does education shape political rivalry and hostility?
In another interesting piece titled “Remaking the citizen for new times,” the academic and writer Deepa Sreenivas shows how the popular comic book series Amar Chitra Katha had subtly veered the historical and national consciousness of young readers towards a conservative direction.
Speaking to Frontline, Sreenivas said, “Through an analysis of the stories and visuals, I explored how history and mythology are skillfully deployed to construct an “ideal citizen” in the post-Nehruvian era—proud, individualist, persevering, one that the child reader must emulate. Some of the questions that interested me are: Who is the ideal citizen? Who can claim merit? Who has the confidence of belonging and who is excluded from the discourse of merit? I feel these questions assume redoubled significance in neoliberal times when success and competition emerge as more desirable than ever, overshadowing questions of historical marginalisation and social justice.”
“History for Peace Tracts” has evolved from an earlier project titled “Peace Works”, which was conceptualised two decades ago by the founder and managing director of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore. The idea behind the project was peace-building through the arts. Initially, Seagull would take curated films to schools and hold talks around them. From there it progressed to theatre-related workshops with discussions on communal harmony, tolerance, and other such issues. Students from Pakistan and Bangladesh were also invited to participate.
Megha Malhotra, Project Director at Seagull Foundations for the Arts, told Frontline, “At a certain point we began to feel a little restless about the numbers, as far as reaching people was concerned. In the workshop mode we were addressing about 30 students at a time; there was an urgent need to grow. That led to us working with teachers, and the project “History for Peace” was born.”
In 2015, Seagull set up a network of high-school history teachers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to explore innovative ways of teaching and looking at history, recognising and addressing biases in textbooks, examining events from multiple perspectives, and encouraging teachers to bring historical thinking to the classroom. “One important question we were constantly looking at was: where does conflict come from? One strong response to it was bias, which is something everyone needs to look into, and the solution is to develop critical thinking skills,” said Malhotra. History was chosen as the subject because of the nature of textbooks at the high-school level and the need to bring about a pedagogical change in the classroom.
“We have been collating and creating primers and resource materials that a teacher can use. For example, our textbooks usually do not mention the role of women in drafting the Constitution; we made models on topics like these, some of them stemming from the talks we had at the conferences. The idea of continued education for schoolteachers is not there in our system, resulting in a huge gap between the academia and school-level teaching. This was an attempt to bridge that gap, and encourage teachers to bring something more into the classrooms,” said Malhotra.
Wealth of content
Seagull’s conferences on teaching history from 2015 onward have had speakers, historians, scholars, textbook writers, and art-practitioners discussing historical narratives. A web space, historyforpeace.pw, was designed to facilitate dialogue among teachers across the subcontinent. From 2017, “History for Peace Tracts” was holding conferences in schools across India. “All of this generated a wealth of content. It made logical sense to take this out to the wider world,” said Malhotra. Many of the monographs to be published are based on lectures delivered some years ago (for instance, Habib’s lecture is from 2016); they have been edited, revised, and if necessary, updated, by the authors.
“The idea behind the project was peace-building through the arts.”
According to Diven Nagpal, Assistant Editor, Seagull Books, Seagull already has about 50 essays based on the conferences that are available online. They can be published as part of “History for Peace Tracts” project in the coming years. “After the first six books, we hope to bring out five or six more titles by the end of the year. In fact, every year we hope to publish 12 or 13 monographs,” said Nagpal. “At a time when there is a clampdown on alternative ideas and dissent, the timing of the publication is deliberate. One of the focal points of the series is to examine cultural contingencies of the political status quo.”
Malhotra feels that the series is relevant not just for the present but also for the future. “There are so many intellectuals and scholars who are not well-known outside the academia, but who have been doing brilliant work. It is important to get that out in the public domain,” she said.
- Seagull’s “History for Peace Tracts”, project consists of a series of monographs by eminent thinkers, scholars and specialists.
- The first instalment of the series to be published in June 2023 will have six monographs by Irfan Habib, Janaki Nair, Yousuf Saeed, Rajeev Bhargava, Deepa Srinivas, and Krishna Kumar on diverse topics.
- The monographs are based on conferences and talks Seagull has held all over India.
- The idea behind the conferences is to explore innovative ways of teaching and looking at history, recognising and addressing biases in textbooks, examining events from multiple perspectives, and encouraging teachers to bring historical thinking to the classroom.